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Pulitzer Prize winner to lecture on biodiversity

Austin Frederick

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Sitting in the Tuscaloosa Cultural Arts Center last Thursday, Edward O. Wilson recalled a story about a massive spider.

“I was out on a path, and there was a giant tarantula on the path,” Wilson said. “Tarantulas look like big, hairy, sluggish creatures. I wanted to get it off the path, and I thought if I just nudged it, it would move off the path. I tapped it, and it turned around faster than the eye could see, and it had its two fangs reared and ready to strike. And I thought to myself, ‘There is so much about animals that we don’t know.’”

A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, biologist and UA alumnus, Wilson comes from a humble background and remains humble in spite of his overwhelming achievements.

Hailing from Birmingham, he was forced to give up things like studying birds and animals when he was blinded in one eye in a fishing accident. He decided to turn his attention to a species he could study through a microscope: insects.

In high school, Wilson discovered the first fire ant colony in the United States. He graduated with his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from The University of Alabama and received his doctorate from Harvard University.

(See also UA students contribute to discovery of new frog species“)

Since then, Wilson has published 29 books including “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis and The Diversity of Life,” which was voted on as the most important book on animal behavior in history, and received the Pulitzer Prize for his books “On Human Nature” and “The Ants.” Another population book of Wilson’s, “Consilience,” discusses some methods that have been used to unite the sciences and might in the future unite them with the humanities.

“It’s essentially about the unity of knowledge and how they are all related and how they are all related to the humanities and the term he makes up for that is consilience,” Adam Beg, a senior majoring in biology, said.

Wilson is also the founder of the theory of sociobiology, which argues that human and evolutionary forces shape animal behavior. Beg recalled a talk Wilson gave on campus last here when visiting Tuscaloosa.

“He talked about how altruism can be a genetic thing,” Beg said. “You would think that altruism wouldn’t benefit you genetically unless you were a human, but he was talking about how it all relates to the constructs between other animals and how it is seen in early man.”

Wilson has also recently written another book called “A Window on Eternity,” which discusses Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, which was destroyed, restored and continues to evolve.

“It’s not just a book of ideas, which I usually write about, it should be experienced by sight and even sound if it were possible,” Wilson said.

Wilson is currently involved with three-day biodiversity symposium at The University of Alabama held in his honor. In conjunction with this, he graciously donated all of his awards, which are on display at the Tuscaloosa Cultural Arts Center in downtown Tuscaloosa.

“We are doing this biodiversity symposium with some of the top authorities in the field. That part is excellent,” Wilson said. “I gave my awards to the University but didn’t expect them to be used like this. I’m very proud of them. I thought they would just be stored somewhere because I needed to put them somewhere. I didn’t want to pass them on to someone and then have them show up on eBay so I thought giving them to the University would be a logical gift.”

(See also “E.O. Wilson speaks on human behavior, development“)

Although he showed a love for the state of Alabama, Wilson wasn’t shy about his opinion on Alabama’s past exclusion of evolution education in public school systems throughout the state.

“My fellow Alabamians are just the most wonderful people in the world,” he said. “They are progressing rapidly and they will turn this state into one of the premier states within the coming years. But on the evolution issue, they are behaving stupidly.”

Wilson said although he could not have foreseen his successes, he also thinks ambitious people shouldn’t be so surprised when they work for something for their entire lives.

“Ambitious people always hit for the fence,” he said. “If you’ve been working to hit for the fence for your entire life, and you finally do it, why should you be surprised?”

Before the technological age, Wilson made most of his discoveries with nothing more than a microscope. Although other theories are changing with the onset of new technology, Wilson said his have largely stayed the same.

“My theories haven’t changed because of technology,” Wilson said. “I think it’s just prolonged them with new evidence. It’s provided us a way to see things and analyze things that have not been analyzed yet.”

Wilson is retired and currently lives with his wife Irene in Lexington, Mass. He will give a special plenary address at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in the Moody Music Building Concert Hall in conjunction with the biodiversity symposium. The event is free and open to the public. For a complete schedule, visit biodiversity.ua.edu.

(See also “Wilson reminds us to daydream, ‘soldier on’“)

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Pulitzer Prize winner to lecture on biodiversity